A Picture is Worth a Certain Number of Words

A Picture is Worth a Certain Number of Words

A long time ago, illustrations and photos—in magazines, newspapers, books—used to be pretty much a straightforward affair.

They followed one rule: Put in the picture that's needed here.

That is to say, they were descriptive, or of immediate value. A few examples:

  • For a news item about the health benefits of apples, use a nice picture of an apple.
  • For a magazine article about computer speakers, use a picture of a pair of good speakers.
  • In a self-help book about public speaking, use no image at all.

Sound trivial? They are. That’s the point. Before computers, and computer-based training, and then stock images, visuals were a simple affair. Now there are way too many possibilities.

So let’s say we want to reduce the clutter. You’re choosing the visuals to use in a course. You have many image types, many ID possibilities (and concerns), and some standard practices. How do you choose good visuals?


Right. Now think: Why are you choosing visuals for the course?

Because they need to be there, you say.

That’s pretty much the point here. Let’s not assume that the visuals/images/graphics need to be there—and then move on to what a visual can and can’t do.

We spoke about multimedia overload in an earlier post. Let’s go over some of those points again in the specific context of visuals.

“Make them relevant but not distracting.”

Let’s assume you are looking to make the visual relevant to the course and topic. When we try too hard, we end up with a force-fit, or we give up and use an irrelevant image. It might be a better idea to not use an image at all (if possible), or perhaps just maintain consistency by repeating an image.

By the way, here’s a photoshopped example of an image complementing the text but doing a little too much:

“Augment the text without overloading.”

If the image augments the text and/or audio, good. If you can’t come up with one, maybe you could let the text augment the image? (One large image summing up the text perhaps?)

“Add visual relief but not too much.”

Let’s not deny that visual relief is very important. Visual relief can come in forms other than images, though. Maybe borders and backgrounds, maybe interface elements, maybe the occasional font and colour change.


That was about alternatives to visuals. Now, when the fact is that "one image must go on this page/screen/slide," I think the hard part is to analyse whether the image will augment the other elements, or whether the image will look like the main thing.

We know that images anchor the eye. We also know that images complement what else is on screen. So which of these is it going to be?

Here’s an example of the image complementing the text:

And here’s when an image anchors the eye:

It is about placement and relative size here, but it’s also about what the image is doing. It's a fine balance.